Leonard Bernstein: William Schuman Symphony 3, New York Philharmonic

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Leonard Bernstein conducting William Schuman Symphony 3 with New York Philharmonic

William Schuman
William Schuman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1. Passacaglia and Fugue 0:00
2. Chorale and Toccata 13:42

Aaron Copland called William Schuman "the musical find of the year" after reading through Schuman's Symphony No. 2, and introduced the work to Sergey Koussevitzky, the legendary conductor of the Boston Symphony. The backing of these two men helped to pave the way for Schuman's Symphony No. 3, which was dedicated to and premiered by Koussevitzky. From its premiere, the Symphony No. 3 scored a rousing success with critics and audiences alike, and it immediately placed Schuman among a select group of American composers, including Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and of course Copland, who were defining a new American orchestral sound in the early 1940s.

Written for a huge orchestra, the work is laid out in two parts, each of which contains two movements played without a break. The movements are titled Passacaglia, Fugue, Chorale, and Toccata. Anyone expecting a neo-Baroque work will be surprised, however, for Schuman uses only the loosest outline of these ancient forms in this modern work. The Passacaglia actually opens with a canon, despite its title. This canon is surely one of the most beautiful passages in the American orchestral repertoire, with a cool, subtle, gorgeous melody that grows only more seductive with each canonic entrance. After this section is complete, Schuman moves into something more like a passacaglia, keeping the theme audible through four variations; the third variation, with a quiet, solemn version of the melody on the violins and a rapid susurrus of sixteenth notes in the cellos below, is especially effective.

English: Leonard Bernstein
 Leonard Bernstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Passacaglia yields directly to the Fugue, built on a variant of the Passacaglia theme. This is written in full seven-part counterpoint, but the orchestral textures are clean and lucid. Soon the fugue yields to variations, with a winding elaboration in the woodwinds which eventually is joined by a soft wash of melody on muted strings. A long timpani solo, bold and raucous, follows, after which the music pushes forward relentlessly to a massive coda.

The Chorale, too, is derived from the Passacaglia melody. After a long introduction of slow, noble music on the strings, a solo trumpet finally sings the theme itself. A flute provides aid, and eventually takes over in a luminous solo. An obvious inversion of the first Fugue variation comes in on the strings, and works up to a climax. The chorale is repeated, and brasses and strings slowly wind down to a low B flat, where the Toccata begins. A snare drum beats out the melody's rhythm, and a bass clarinet states the melody itself. Eventually, the whole woodwind section gets in on the action, producing a riot of color over the lone snare drum. The strings come back in, bringing themes from the other movements with them, and alternate slow music with fast until, pushed on by the brass, the music finally rises to a gigantic concluding climax and coda. Schuman's Symphony No. 3 is instantly communicative, unfailingly eloquent and completely memorable.